Intrusive Thought Interpretation and Affect in Younger and Older Adults

People often experience unwelcome and intrusive thoughts. But older adults appear to interpret them differently than younger adults, according to a new study. Joshua Magee of the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and Bethany Teachman of the University of Virginia, recruited 51 adults between the ages of 18 and 30, and 49 adults over age 65, to determine if their moods were affected by their ability to suppress intrusive thoughts. The researchers said, “Suppression effort has been predicted to be an ineffective long-term strategy for controlling intrusive thoughts, and it has been linked to trait anxiety in older adults but may be effective in some cases at reducing actual thought recurrence in the short-term.”

The team measured the participants for anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive behaviors at baseline, and again at two separate points throughout the study. The test subjects were instructed to write a phrase that elicited distressful thoughts and focus on it for 40 seconds. They recorded how often and how long they had intrusive negative thoughts by hitting a key on a keyboard. After, each participant was given either a suppression or thought monitoring task. They were again asked to record the frequency and duration of intrusive thoughts over four minutes. At the end, the participants were asked to record how much effort they used to suppress or control the intrusive thoughts. The researchers found that the older group thought it required more effort to suppress intrusive thoughts than the younger group; however the older group actually experienced decreased recurrence of negative thoughts. Additionally, the older group had more positive affect after experiencing the intrusive thoughts. The study also revealed that each group gave different meanings to their ability suppress or control the thoughts. “Specifically, older adults were prone to interpret the recurrence of intrusive thoughts as a sign of cognitive decline, but they were less likely than younger adults to see intrusive thoughts as a sign of moral failure,” said the team. “Together, these results highlight a range of potential risk and protective factors in older adults for experiencing emotion dysregulation after intrusive thoughts.”


Magee, J. C., & Teachman, B. A. (2011, June 27). Distress and Recurrence of Intrusive Thoughts in Younger and Older Adults. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024249

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jackson


    August 10th, 2011 at 4:41 AM

    Having worked with a senior citizen population for much of my life I would like to add that one thing that worries many of us but especially older people is the thought that they are losing their mental capabilities. I think that many of them are so aware that this is a possibility that they take almost any little thing to mean that this is an area in which they are declining. One of the ebst things to do is to keep them active and engaged, something that many of them do not get when they are still trying to live at home on their own.

  • victoria


    August 10th, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    interesting to see how the same things affect us differently at different ages.I’d say it has more to do with the way we tend to think at a certain age than anything else.

  • Dean C. Cleaver

    Dean C. Cleaver

    August 11th, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    Maybe we have simply had more practice in suppressing such thoughts the older we get and that’s why the older group came out on top in that particular study. You know what they say, practice makes perfect. :)

  • Barbara Deveney

    Barbara Deveney

    August 11th, 2011 at 9:49 PM

    Personally I don’t believe suppressing bad thoughts is healthy. Better to acknowledge their existence from an observer’s perspective rather than becoming emotionally embroiled in them, and then let them pass on by. That’s much better for you than burying them.

  • Vaughn Cole

    Vaughn Cole

    August 12th, 2011 at 11:15 PM

    @Victoria: That’s how it is, yes. We can have very weird trains of thought and bizarre logic at a younger age and it’s simply because we have so much life experience ahead of us. Which is no bad thing! There’s a lot of as yet unexplored territory in those young heads on those shoulders which leaves room for imaginative and creative thought.

  • Jim Hern

    Jim Hern

    August 14th, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    With us old people we know our time is up. And thoughts do occupy us a great deal of the time. I think that many of us, myself included, know that it is not a rational thing to harp on them all of the time but there are some things that can’t be helped. You dwell on the past, wonder how much time you have left in the future, and it begins to consume many of your actions.

  • heather atkins

    heather atkins

    August 14th, 2011 at 8:42 PM

    Could someone take a moment to explain to me exactly what an intrusive thought is please? I can’t picture how the human brain could cause itself problems by thinking about something that is bad.

  • Grace Hill

    Grace Hill

    August 14th, 2011 at 8:56 PM

    @heather atkins-That’s because the human brain has a specific filter that keeps the worst of it out while you’re up and about. If you pay attention while you’re very tired, that part of the brain shuts down and you end up having surreal, disturbing, or even outright freakish thoughts if you stay just on the border between sleeping and waking.

    Thoughts about generational incest is a good example since humans are naturally repulsed by the idea.

  • Phil McDougall

    Phil McDougall

    August 15th, 2011 at 9:04 PM

    I read a page on this and I saw that some will feel fear and guilt on the fact they might act on those kinds of thoughts. I’m no psychologist, but I will tell you that’s not how it happens imho.

    You can have those kinds of thoughts, but unless you willingly think them afterwards without feeling distressed, you will abhor it as much as you did then. Even if you cease to abhor it, you were repulsed by the idea at the start and you won’t do it.

  • bobby torres

    bobby torres

    August 15th, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    I believe that these buried thoughts that crawl out of the woodwork can be a good insight into someone’s true nature, escaping the facade we all hide behind for many reasons. I don’t mean that an individual with intrusive thoughts of sexual perversion is actually a rapist or incestuous on the inside. I’m suggesting it would be interesting were such thoughts to be interpreted similarly to dreams.

  • Yvette Carradine

    Yvette Carradine

    August 19th, 2011 at 3:21 PM

    @bobby torres–I think you’re onto something with that last line. Those intrusive thoughts might be dreams of a sort. I can see the similarities because our dreams have aspects to them of symbology and very strange, sometimes disturbing material in them that we usually forget about in the morning light.

    Because we’re awake, perhaps we notice and remember the intrusive thoughts more readily. Funny enough I can remember odd thoughts I had when I was seven yet I can’t remember that dream I had this morning.

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